Four races into 2018 and there’s a trend forming in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: Where’s Chevrolet?
It seems like a repeat of the World War II game that shipbuilders would play with their colleagues called “Where’s Waldo?”
Yes, Austin Dillon did put the brand new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in victory lane for the Daytona 500. But since then, the Bowtie Brigade has been well off the mark in the last three weeks.
Throwing out Daytona, because restrictor plates are the great equalizer in NASCAR, Chevrolet drivers have managed just four top 10 finishes in the last three weeks.
Following Sunday’s action at ISM Raceway (Phoenix), Kyle Larson holds court as the highest ranked Chevrolet driver in the points standings at No. 9. Next is Dillon at No. 12.
Atlanta – 2 Chevrolets in the Top 10
Ryan Newman started second at Atlanta and beat pole-sitter Kyle Busch to turn one. Newman then led the first 17 laps. Unfortunately for Chevrolet, those were the only laps of the 325-lap event that a Camaro ZL1 led the field.
Larson came in seventh in each of the first two stages and finished 9th, with fellow Chevrolet driver Chase Elliott right behind in tenth.
Ford dominated, earning five of the top eight spots when the checkered flag fell.
Las Vegas – 1 Chevrolet in the Top 10
Larson started fifth at Las Vegas and put together a solid race with third place finishes at the end of each stage and the conclusion of the race.
Elliott joined Larson on the third row at the start of the race and collected eighth and ninth place finishes in the first two races respectively. However, Elliott was caught up in a crash on lap 184 with Kurt Busch and finished 34th.
Three Chevrolet drivers did manage to finish 11-13 – Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, and Newman, in that order.
Phoenix – 1 Chevrolet in the Top 10
Again, Larson had the best qualifying effort amongst Chevrolet drivers at Phoenix. And like his fellow Chevy driver Newman, he took the lead from his outside-pole starting position and commanded the lead for the first 30 laps.
For the second week in a row, the highest finishing Chevrolet was third, with Elliott earning that honor. The next highest Chevy finisher was Newman in 11th, followed by the remaining three Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Byron was in 12th, Alex Bowman in 13th and Johnson in 14th.
Why the poor results?
Plain and simple, Chevrolet seems to be struggling with in-race performance, particularly on the tracks where downforce is a critical factor.
Toyota debuted a revolutionary nose design in 2017 that some people say presented an unprecedented aerodynamic advantage. The new Toyota nose has nooks and crannies, which present opportunities for air to get trapped and create front downforce.
Chevrolet followed suit by announcing the Camaro ZL1 would be the body of choice in the Cup Series, due to the discontinuation of the Chevrolet SS.
Many thought that Chevrolet would level the playing field with Toyota by having similar crevasses in the nose as the Toyota.
Three non-restrictor plate races into the 2018 season, and that does not seem to be the case.
Results at Atlanta and Las Vegas could be attributed to downforce deficiencies, as those tracks require high amounts of aerodynamics to keep the cars planted on the surface in high-speed corners.
Sunday’s race at ISM Speedway should be a head-scratcher for Chevy though. Generally, slower speeds should reduce dependence on downforce. Just one top 10 finish, plus a quartet of finishers just outside of the top 10 should have Chevrolet teams and engineers digging deep for answers.
The raw power is there, as evidenced by strong qualifying performances at Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. But once race day comes, Chevrolet’s have seemed to not have much success.
Poor handling in traffic could be a possible explanation. Could the Camaro ZL1’s nose have too much indentation, thus creating too much downforce and drag on the front end?
The #NASCARGoesWest movement continues next weekend, as the Cup Series visits Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on Sunday afternoon.
Auto Club Speedway features a combination of high downforce and high speed with its long straights and sweeping turns.
Auto Club Speedway could be a place where Chevrolet can showcase flat-out speed toward solid results. Or, significant downforce flaws could be exposed in the new nose design.
If the latter becomes apparent, it could be a long season for Chevrolet drivers, teams and fans.